SUNRISE, Fla. — There wasn't a playoff atmosphere inside BB&T Center and no win streak was on the line. The Buffalo Sabres were playing a last-place opponent while surrounded by thousands of empty red seats on the second night of back-to-back games on the schedule.
It was in stark contrast to what they encountered one night earlier in Tampa Bay. The result was an ugly letdown that Phil Housley planned to use as a lesson for a team that no longer catches anyone by surprise. Buffalo blew another lead in the third period and lost in overtime, 3-2, to the Florida Panthers on Friday night.
Backup goalie Linus Ullmark made 40 saves to help the Sabres, 17-7-3, steal a point and move into a tie for first place in the Atlantic Division with the idle Lightning. This is only the second time this season they have lost back-to-back games; however, the third 10-game win streak in franchise history raised the standard.
Buffalo didn't have the same relentless attack that allowed it to come back twice in a 5-4 loss to the Lightning Thursday night. It started slow and was on the defensive throughout the game, and Aleksander Barkov's game-winner 2:26 into overtime made the thrilling win streak a distant memory.
"They know about the streak now," Housley said of opponents. "They see where we are in the standings, and we’re going to get everybody’s best game. … They came out with a purpose, and I think going through this, our guys are learning we’re going to get their best game, and we’ve got to be a little more desperate in our game, especially on the road here."
The Panthers, still in last place at 10-10-4 with 24 points, attempted 40 more shots than the Sabres and had the puck in the offensive zone for much of the night. Yet, the game never seemed in doubt for Buffalo. Jeff Skinner's 20th goal of the season, a wrister on a 2-on-1 breakaway 10:55 into the first period, gave the Sabres a 1-0 lead.
They were 12-0-2 this season when scoring first, and Ullmark was at his best early. But the same problems that halted the win streak one night earlier followed the Sabres across the Sunshine State. Again, they took too many penalties. Florida hit the post moments after Rasmus Ristolainen's interference penalty midway through the first, and tied it, 1-1, with Jared McCann's slap shot from the point while Rasmus Dahlin was in the penalty box.
The Sabres looked tired. They were without two of their top six defensemen, as Jake McCabe is day-to-day and Marco Scandella was placed on injured reserve. Winger Conor Sheary, a catalyst on the second line, missed his third straight game. This was the team's ninth game in 15 days, including six on the road.
None were as taxing as Thursday night in Tampa Bay, an emotional, gut-wrenching loss where the Sabres led in the third period, only to allow two unanswered goals.
"There was a long stretch there," Skinner said. "It was a pretty emotional game last night and back-to-back. It’s always a challenge, I think. We’ve got enough guys in here that have been around that you get ready for the next game, whether you win or lose. Whether you go on a streak or not."
Despite the lack of shots, Sam Reinhart's whack at a bouncing puck for a power play goal regained the lead 2:41 into the second period. The Sabres were 8-0-1 this season when leading after two periods, and the third was often their best. On the other hand, Florida entered Friday with a negative-11 goal differential in the third period of games this season.
The Panthers still outplayed the Sabres for the final 20 minutes of regulation. Ullmark did his part by preventing rebounds, making the task easier for a blue line that had Lawrence Pilut making his NHL debut. But Buffalo defenseman Casey Nelson was penalized for high sticking, and Florida capitalized when Evgenii Dadonov shot a rebound past Ullmark to tie it, 2-2, with 8:04 remaining in regulation.
"I always think I can do something on all the goals," Ullmark said afterward. "I lost my seal there on the second one."
The Sabres seemed to be playing to protect a lead, rather than attacking. They weren't using their speed to create pressure in the neutral zone and were outshot, 43-24. Their defensemen were trying too hard to make the perfect pass, which led to turnovers and odd-man rushes the other direction. The game went into overtime — Buffalo's 10th in its last 17 games — and Jonathan Huberdeau set up the winner when he passed to Barkov, who caught Ullmark by surprise and shot into the open net.
"Obviously with the back-to-back, we had an emotional game last night," Jack Eichel said. "It’s a tough one."